The H.D. Book by Robert Duncan

Sunday, April 3, 2011

The H.D. Book

By Robert Duncan
University of California Press

In an 1885 letter to the poet Paul Verlaine, who had requested biographical information for sketches he was writing about contemporary poets, Stéphane Mallarmé wrote: “The orphic explanation of the Earth is the poet’s only duty.” Perhaps no twentieth-century American poet took that directive more seriously than did Robert Duncan, the Bay-area writer whose Theosophical inheritance (his adoptive parents were adherents) and astonishingly extensive reading combined to produce a poetics that is part hermetism, part postmodern field theory, and part literary romanticism in the broadest sense. Had he been born in a different era or place than Bakersfield, California, in 1919, Duncan might have been a disciple of Proclus, a troubadour, a seventeenth-century alchemist, a fin-de-siècle priest, or a Freudian psychoanalyst. He was, among other things, one of the first men to write publicly about being gay in America, in an essay titled “The Homosexual in Society” published in Dwight Macdonald’s magazine Politics in 1944. He and the painter Jess Collins maintained a long-term domestic partnership beginning in the early 1950s.

In the preface to a collection of his early poems called The Years as Catches (1966, but collecting poems from the period 1939–46), he defined poetry as “essentially a magic of excited, exalted or witch-like (exciting) speech, in which the poet ha[s] access to a world of sight and feeling, a reality, deeper, stranger, and larger, than the world of men’s conventional concerns.” The craft of writing poems he described as “a manipulation of effects in language towards that excitation.” This does not sound remotely like a postmodernist talking—it could almost be Coleridge or Ernest Dowson or even Rilke—but Duncan would later be associated with the Berkeley Renaissance of the 1940s and the Black Mountain movement of the 1950s, both of them avant-garde in their definitions and affiliations. Charles Olson’s essay “Projective Verse” (1950) became a self-acknowledged touchstone for Duncan’s work, but he did not hesitate to number poets like Laura Riding and Edith Sitwell among his “masters,” a group that also included Pound, Williams, Joyce, and other more obviously canonical modern writers. He tolerated Marianne Moore but considered T. S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens too closed in their sensibilities and formal concerns for emulation or readerly affection.

And then there was Hilda Doolittle (1886–1961). After Ezra Pound added the signature “H.D., Imagiste” in 1912 to some of her poems that later were published in Harriet Monroe’s Poetry magazine, she was always known as H.D. It was a request for an essay from her great friend and supporter Norman Holmes Pearson that initiated Duncan’s H.D. Book in 1959. What began as a tribute became a large-scale work, part autobiography, part criticism, part essay in poetics, and part homage, chapters of it appearing over the years between 1966 and the mid-1980s, but the whole being neither finished before Duncan’s death in 1988 nor brought together as a single book until now. The editors of this first edition refer to The H.D. Book as “one of the great ‘lost’ texts in the history of American poetry,” though they quickly qualify its status as “lost,” given that much of it was findable if one took the trouble to hunt down the issues of Coyote’s Journal, Caterpillar, Io, TriQuarterly, Sumac, and other literary magazines where individual chapters appeared over the years. Libraries do save such things, so Duncan’s book was never really lost in the way that most of Lucan’s works, Byron’s journals, and Fauré’s Violin Concerto are lost. All the same, it is to the great credit of the University of California Press that they have undertaken to publish Duncan’s collected works, and that the first volume in what is to be a series of six should be an edition of The H.D. Book.

As a work of literary commentary, The H.D. Book is in a small but notable tradition of highly personal criticism that began in the 1920s with D. H. Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature and William Carlos Williams’s In the American Grain (both 1925), and that includes later books such as Edward Dahlberg’s Do These Bones Live? (1941) and Charles Olson’s Call Me Ishmael (1947). These books all went noticeably against the grain of their time, which was dominated by the so-called New Criticism, an austere philosophy of reading poetry that concentrated on the work to the exclusion of all else—biography, social and cultural milieu, literary influences and so on—and which rose to prominence with the expansion of English departments in American universities after World War I. In The H.D. Book, Duncan almost never writes negatively about other writers, but he makes an exception for the proponents of the New Criticism, especially the work of John Crowe Ransom, Cleanth Brooks, Yvor Winters, and Randall Jarrell, all of whom not incidentally disliked H.D.’s later poetry. He points out that both Brooks and Ransom were the sons of Methodist ministers, and later he archly dismisses the latter in as close to a catty sentence as he ever comes: “A man could be touched by the genius of Poetry as Ransom was and then emerge magnificently free from the ravages of inspiration in what he would call his ‘proper heat and center.’ ” The Methodist background would have been read by Duncan as extreme narrow-mindedness, for his own Christianity—or perhaps Christology is the more accurate word—was infused with esotericism and the syncretic Hellenism that he identifies as arising in Alexandria in the third century BCE. He was not uncritical of his own background. His biographer, Ekbert Faas, quotes from a letter Duncan wrote to Pound in the late 1940s in which he refers slightingly to the “stupidest muck of Hermetic cultism” in which he was brought up. But his poetry is often articulated within the great circle of the occult, and though he recognizes Christ as the Redeemer in The H.D. Book, he is more interested in seeing him as a representative “reborn” man, an example of what he calls “the greater day of the human consciousness” (482). The Protestantism of Brooks and Ransom would have seemed both anti-intellectual and antiemotional to him. Surely also Duncan would not have forgotten that twenty years earlier Ransom had reneged on printing one of Duncan’s early poems in the Kenyon Review after the poet’s open avowal of homosexuality in the Politics article.

The H.D. Book is composed of two long “books,” in six and eleven chapters respectively. A third book, devoted mainly to H.D.’s Helen in Egypt (1961), was never finished by Duncan and is included as an appendix. Duncan sets the stage by recounting in book 1, chapter 1, a vivid memory of hearing a poem by H.D. read by his English teacher, Miss Keough, when he was fifteen or sixteen. The poem struck him forcefully—it was one of H.D.’s early imagist poems—but equally important was the fact that the teacher presented it not as mere literature for study but as something essential to life, as representative of how poetry not only encodes experience or history but embodies what Duncan later in the same chapter calls “an imperative toward perfection.” So the two great interweaving themes of this work are set out: H.D.’s poetry and Duncan’s evolving poetics.

The text is replete with references to literary, religious, historical, psychological, and other works, but midway through the book Duncan claims, perhaps a little self-consciously, that he is “not a literary scholar nor an historian, not a psychologist, a professor of comparative religions, nor an occultist.” He is “a student of, I am searching out, a poetics.” This is not to say that H.D.’s work is merely a pretext in a larger writerly game; Duncan is simply unusually candid about acknowledging that his “masters” are many and his poetics has been pieced together like a mosaic from his breathtakingly wide reading in poetry and cultural history. He likens it to collage, a technique that comes up more than once in The H.D. Book. He astutely sees Madame Blavatsky’s books, for example, “midden heaps that they are of unreasonable sources,” as representing “the collagist’s art,” and earlier in the text he had said that “the great art of my time [ca. 1960] is the collagist’s art, to bring all things into new complexes of meaning, mixing associations.” (While few art historians would agree with that view, one has to remember that Duncan’s life partner, Jess Collins, was a collage artist.)

Yet if Duncan had wanted to classify his influences, he would have placed H.D. among the most accomplished poets of the twentieth century. This was a conviction shared by few in 1960, when H.D. was still considered something of a spécialité. Her War Trilogy, which is Duncan’s main focus in this study, was not well reviewed, and the feminist rediscovery of her poetry was still a long way in the future. While the editors make something of a case for Duncan’s supposedly devoting himself to a kind of feminist recovery project avant la lettre in the field of modernist poetry, and while he does glance briefly at Dorothy Richardson, Virginia Woolf, Edith Sitwell, and Laura Riding (but not at others like Djuna Barnes or Mina Loy), it is really only H.D. among the women writers who receives the deep attention that he gives to Joyce, Pound, and Williams. H.D. was, Duncan says early in book 2, “my master here in the art of writing; and . . . my master here in spirit.”

That duality is the key to Duncan’s obsession and presumably the central reason for the existence of a seven-hundred-page book on a poet whom many are still inclined to think of as a secondary modernist. Duncan was wary of being seen as attempting to “raise H.D.’s stock,” as we might say today, and he does not hesitate to quote even her doubts about his project. “Why don’t you write a book about your own affairs?” he quotes her as asking him directly at one point. Thirty years before that, in an autobiographical statement in the Little Review, she had said, “I fear people from the future who may ‘trap’ me.” It is to Duncan’s credit that he is willing to bring his subject’s doubts into his book, but this is hardly surprising, given his view of the book as an evolving work in progress—he would have said process, invoking Whitehead’s term from Process and Reality—that is, “a book of continuations not of conclusions.”

Duncan explores at length, and again and again over the course of the book, the crucial years just before World War I when H.D. made her debut as the essential imagist, when her poetry was defined (forever for some readers) by its concision, its avoidance of all excess descriptive vocabulary, and its inheritance from Greek poetics and plastic ideals. She played, as it were, a solo woodwind instrument (no harmony, no counterpoint), and of course it was Ezra Pound who wrote and published the explanatory aesthetic texts that helped to canonize her poetry at this early stage. Duncan deeply admires that early work—it was, after all, “Garden,” one of the poems from Sea Garden (1916), that introduced him to H.D.’s poetry in that high school English class—but his obsession was clearly sustained by the fact that her later writing, especially the three long poems that make up the trilogy (The Walls Do Not Fall, 1944; Tribute to the Angels, 1945; and The Flowering of the Rod, 1946), embodies the crucial influence of hermetism. This is why he calls her a master of spirit as well as a master of writing. Chapter 5 of book 1 focuses on H.D.’s sessions of Freudian analysis (with Freud himself) and considers how this critical experience helped to move her work into a broader spiritual context. Much of chapter 9 of book 1 is devoted to showing the discernible hermetic inheritance in the trilogy, beginning with H.D.’s personal background (her parents were Moravians) and extending to tutelary figures like Hermes Trismegistus, Mary Magdalen, Simon Magus, Amon-Ra, and finally a hellenized Christ.    

More than Pound or Williams or Joyce, then, H.D. was not only a predecessor poet whose work Duncan admired profoundly from a technical point of view but also a poet whose spiritual transit was allied with his own. The dedication that he respected in Yeats’s writing, what he calls “poetry as a vehicle for heterodox belief,” he did not so much find in Pound and Williams. He very cannily calls Pound “a pagan fundamentalist” in the same passage, “pagan” because Pound was unwilling to recognize the Christos figure in the Cantos, and “fundamentalist” because of his lack of interest in sexual experience. In this as in many, many places Duncan shows himself to be a wonderfully smart reader of poetry and poets. (For example, in Pound’s earliest book of criticism, The Spirit of Romance, published first in 1910 just before the Imagist Manifesto, Duncan finds “not a history of the actual past but an instruction in the nature of the high art that was to be contemporary poetry.” Eliot’s The Waste Land was “the first poem in which the American mind lay so mediumistically open to the wastes of Europe’s agony.” Gertrude Stein, Robert McAlmon, Ernest Hemingway, and E. E. Cummings “became sophisticated in language as a jargon” and are thus second-rank artists. If Duncan can be faulted occasionally for taking high seriousness to the level of pretentiousness, let it be noted that in this same passage he recognizes the value of jargon in Anita Loos, of all people, the novelist who wrote Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, because it was used “for a comic chic.”)

H.D. was above all “the poet as seer and creator,” a phrase that encapsulates Duncan’s poetics as concisely as he ever accomplishes in this book. (Almost at the end of The H.D. Book he defines poets as “those of us that live as units in relation to the language of a society in its functions of suggestion,” social science jargon that he would surely have modified or edited had he lived to complete book 3.) It was the “seer” who admitted “speculations upon the nature of the cosmos as a divine revelation” into her work with the trilogy, even as it came out of the very real world of London under the Blitz.

In the first of a series of poems titled “The Structure of Rhyme” that began to appear in 1960 with the publication of The Opening of the Field, the earliest of Duncan’s mature books, the poet observes that “writing is first a search in obedience.” Obedience is what masters demand, and to some extent Duncan here is bowing to his great predecessors, among whom H.D. figured largely. (The cobra spreading his hood in “The Structure of Rhyme III” is straight out of her trilogy.) He means something else too, something more directly arising from his poetics, which demanded that form be discovered and articulated in the moment of composing rather than being taken (as it had by the New Criticism, for example) as a given imposed abstractly. In another poem in the same book he wrote that poetry was “a spiritual urgency” and, more comically, “The forlorn moosey-faced poem wears / new antler-buds.”

Duncan’s long and close reading of H.D.’s poetry coincided with his earliest “great” poems, the poems that critics now deem his main achievement. He did not think separately as poet and reader/critic. For him the activities were one, were part of a theater where his sensibilities were given free rein. His poetry as a result is highly allusive and full of references to other writers, religion, and myth, while his criticism is intensely personal and proceeds much like an open field poem, searching for form as it goes along, willing to be fragmentary or repetitive, and frequently caught in a verbal flow without obvious goal or finality. The H.D. Book has these qualities, and Duncan’s eye and ear are so acute and his cultural store so rich that he finishes by illuminating her poetry with a keenness and intelligence rare in literary criticism, while working toward a poetics for himself that clearly was immensely fruitful, given the books that followed it in the last third of his life. “The imagination,” he writes (481), “raises images of what a man or what a woman is again and again in order to come into the shape of our actual life; or it seems in order that we come to live in terms of imagined being where we act not in our own best interest but in order to create fate or beauty or drama.” The industrious literary businessmen of today (the phrase is Duncan’s) do not talk or write like this any longer, and this book makes one realize what poetry and writing about poetry have lost as a result. Perhaps Duncan’s example, devotedly rescued from the files of little magazines by Michael Boughn and Victor Coleman, will help to revive poetry’s sense of serious purpose, fifty years after this poet’s “inconclusive asymmetrical order,” his extraordinary book on H.D., was written.